Opinion

A Luana Beach walk reveals Northwest beauty

As winter dissolves into this year’s precipitous spring, the woods are not yet cloaked in the Northwest’s Green Scourge.

The thickets are naked, only scantily clothed with a few blooms and leaf buds. Deciduous trees are lowering their catkins, their greenery still unfurled. On Maury Island, Luana Beach Road provides both a good workout and views into what is hidden come summer: bark, nests, water views, beach cabins and birds courting in the thickets. Very few autos whiz by, allowing amenable conditions for treading the road shoulder.

Begin on 63rd Avenue S.W. and walk through Maury Island’s toplands. Here, sun-loving madronas are full-crowned, widely spaced, with bark red peeling to show vibrant green.

Horses graze the undulating meadows. This gently bumping landscape is characteristic of till, the hardpan deposited by continental glaciation some 15,000 years ago.

A flicker pair work their way in tandem through an orchard. Attesting to the fruit trees’ age and the orchardist’s skill, the trunks have hefty girths, and their bare branches are pruned into a tight crown. Deer stare at me from their shadows.

Dominant on the rise, a squat water tower is equipped with a gizmo attached to the outside that uses weights and a giant ruler to measure water level within the big tank. This tank belongs to Maury Mutual Water Company, serving 100 connections (about 230 folks) with 148,000-gallon storage capacity. Maury Mutual is one of the seven largest public systems that serve 50 percent of the Islands’ population.

Visible in the leafless woods off Luana Beach Road, a few of the 800-plus smaller Island well systems (serving one to 14 households) are sheltered in wooden, hand-built sheds. Although patched with tar paper and leaks mended with duct tape, these waterworks are precious utilities, drawing ground water from wells, springs or well points (collection pipes stuck into seeping ground). Commonly, gravity forces the water through pipes to homes.

Taking a right at Luana Beach Road, the way turns curvy, down and up, running mid-bluff above the shore.

Woods cover the rumpled, downhill, terraced terrain. Northeast Maury is a slide zone: Some slides are surface failures (top soil, a little gray mud, decorated with standing salmonberry thickets). Other slides are deeper blocks of bluff rotating down slowly or, rarely, catastrophically. Sharp ravines cut into the hillsides, evidence of seasonal water, draining the toplands. Without the leafy cover, the results of the massive geologic movement is easily discerned.

As March opens, a view into the woods reveals that leaf and flower buds are fattening. Indian plum lets down its funky white flowers, and its leaves spike open. Elderberry leaves shoot straight up from thin branches. Last year’s sword ferns are prostrate; their bronze fiddleheads not yet emerging. Deciduous huckleberry exhibit tiny pink tips.

Ocean Spray, holding onto brown, dried flower heads, brighten the landscape’s dark palette with tiny, immature leaves of bright green. Whorls of bedstraw (sticky weed) modestly pepper the ground.

And ready to open prettily, the oddball flower of coltsfoot crowds the wetter strips along the road.

In the sticks and branches, bird nests are dark clusters, visible briefly until the imminent leafing out. Tent caterpillars’ silken nests make clots on some branches. Are we nearing the summer when the caterpillar population explodes, defoliates trees, then quickly succumbs to parasites? Local lore blames yellow jackets; however, biologists credit the tachinid fly. Thankfully, litter is rare. The “No dumping or we’ll arrest you” sign must be effective.

The evergreen trees appear to be late second growth, so their bark is distinctive, creating texture, pattern and subtle color in the leafless woods. Cedar bark has vertical, reddish strips; hemlock bark has dark, thin, flat patches.

Douglas fir tells its age by its bark. When young, it looks somewhat similar to cherry bark — gray, thin and bumped with pitch blisters. As the fir ages, the bark thickens and reddens. Grooves form and deepen, and the bark becomes corky between its vertical grooves.

The native Douglas squirrel is common in these woods. Dark-furred with an orangish underbelly and bushy tail, the squirrels build substantial stick nests high in the firs in summer. They strip apart fir cones for the nuts. The resulting piles of cone scales form middens evident at the big firs’ bases. Listen for the squirrel’s scolding chatter or mate-attracting “squeewa.”

Soon the road skirts the shore bluff where the view north is a Puget Sound classic: wave-chopped water bordered with forested points receding north into a purple-white haze all the way to the south end of Whidbey Island.

Immediately overhead, two bald eagles perch on snags. If the big birds lift off, watch them extend their talons, open them into the wind, then close them and tuck them back under their tail feathers as the birds fly straight ahead. Nice move.

As the road levels out, beach cabins appear immediately downhill. The aromas are sharp. First, a scent like spiced cider wafts up, but soon the smell sharpens into wood smoke — a winter smell. Then the odor of beach cabin rises, a particular smell, reminiscent of wood, leaves, standing water, kelp, brine, low tide.

I lived for years in a Bunker Trail cabin. When traveling, I would open my suitcase, and this cabin scent rose from my clothing, making me homesick for the beach.

A watery ditch offers no end of entertainment: invasive canary reed grass, ivy and buttercup vie for dominance over native horsetails, water parsley and ferns.

Zen-worthy purple lotus float, and being plastic, promise to win out over any native or non-native plant. Moored midgarden, a rowboat is captained by hydrangeas.

Fixed to a telephone pole, a red container holds Vashon road maps, each helpfully marked with a red dot, a “Here You Are” note. The maps must be for bicyclists using this up-down road for a strenuous workout.

Between this pole and the next, an informal beach access leads down a low muddy bank and over a gnarly first-growth log. Surf scoters and buffleheads raft offshore, and double-crested cormorants extend their wings on an orange buoy.

This winter, jellyfish sloshed in the small waves. These big, translucent moon jellies sport horseshoe-shaped gonads gleaming from their centers. Male organs are white; female organs are pink. At night, the moon’s edges emit a bioluminescence.

I find it unseasonable to see jellyfish in winter; I think of jellyfish rafts as occurring in late summer when their feed is abundant in the warmer water. To pick one up is near impossible. They slip from my cupped palms.

Memory is like that; agile, lunar, slipping quickly into the cold water.

From this beach respite, the road curves up for the walk’s last leg. In this sheltered niche, the salmonberry began blooming by Valentine’s Day. The usually shy winter wren perches atop the canes and sings incessantly for a mate.

In fall, big-leaf maple leaves pile up, making a slippery slush that challenges car tires and footfall equally. When caterpillars abound in the alders, dropping their frass and themselves, again it must be slippery.

At the top, an old dog barks. He is behind his fence, and he guards a grand stand of snowberry. This stand argues for snowberry’s use in very decorative en masse gardens. In winter, its fleshy, heavy, white berries are very decorative en masse.

At a sign that says “School Bus Turn-Around,” turn around or drive away in your previously dropped-off car.

— Ann Spiers is an Island naturalist and poet.

Directions

On Maury Island, drive Point Robinson Road and turn off onto 63rd Avenue S.W. Park on 63rd S.W. Walk north on 63rd S.W. and turn east (downhill) onto S.W. Luana Beach Road. Follow Luana Beach Road.

One Way: 2.5 miles. Time: 1 hour.

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